2019 Oscar Docs: A Look at the Nominees

Another award season has come and gone, with several movies now nominated for the biggest honor in Hollywood. Five of those movies are documentary features and this year, I managed to see all of the nominees.

With my major disappointment that “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (sort of) behind me, here’s my take on the documentaries nominated for an Oscar.


Courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

Of all the documentaries nominated this year, “RBG” is probably the most straightforward. There’s a general build up throughout the picture of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career to her current status as an iconic voice on the United States Supreme Court, with a biographical account of her rise to the highest judicial circuit in the nation.

Covering several decades, the film recaps her education at Harvard University to her gender discrimination lawsuits and finally, making it to Washington D.C. While being fairly straightforward in its approach, there’s no doubt that “RBG” is a compelling watch.

Ginsburg’s story is an inspiring tale of perseverance, with Ginsburg pushing through difficulties as they come up. Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen did admirable work in crafting the picture, with proper research, good interviews, and editing it all together to form a cohesive story.

As previously stated, the filmmaking approach isn’t groundbreaking, but the movie’s focus can hook an audience in. In the end, it’s a celebration of an important figure, and there’s nothing wrong with embracing these types of pictures.

“Minding the Gap”

Courtesy Kartemquin Films and ITVS.

Consider me skeptical upon first seeing the trailer. When I saw the preview for “Minding the Gap,” I saw a lot of skateboarding and I was not all that intrigued. I was be pleasantly surprised, though, to see the movie has so much more depth.

Bing Liu, the film’s director, tells the story of his own life and the lives of two friends he grew up with in an Illinois rust-belt town. It’s a profoundly intimate look at life for those who grow up in parts of the Midwest that have been hit by job losses and poverty.

As the film goes on, it explores how hobbies, such as skateboarding, can serve as an escape. However, it also challenges the notion, documenting how you can only get so far away from your issues.

The movie comes in at about an hour and a half, though, and I would have liked maybe another 10 minutes. There are a few loose ends and there could have been a bit more follow-up. But, with that said, it’s still a wonderful documentary.

“Free Solo”

Courtesy National Geographic Documentary Films.

Climber Alex Honnold’s assent of Yosemite’s 3,000 foot high El Capitan Wall is documented in this feature. The athletic effort was an impressive endeavor, as Honnold did a free solo-style climb, where the individual isn’t wearing any ropes or harnesses.

From a technical standpoint, “Free Solo” is quite impressive. The film gives enough background information via interviews and footage of Honnold’s life to establish who he is. Then, of course, there’s the actual climb, and through the use of both cameras on the ground and drones flying around, it’s an incredibly entertaining watch.

However, I do wish the film would have given a more unbiased approach to Honnold’s mentality. Throughout the film, Honnold’s view of climbing appears as if it’s obsessive, and he refers to his effort as being that of a warrior.

At times the pressure of his need to accomplish these tasks seem to be driven by a parental relationship, yet this aspect isn’t examined or challenged in depth. There’s also little in terms of how Honnold relates to where he climbs. Is the natural area he spends most of his time something he appreciates, or is it just a means to an end?

I also would have loved for the actual climbing to have been a bit longer. There are times when portions of it are cut away, and there’s an animated graphic showing Honnold’s progress. More scenes of his climb would have been nice.

With all that said, though, the climb itself is thrilling and it’s very finely crafted together to give the audience a view of just how hard it was to accomplish.

“Of Fathers and Sons.”

Courtesy Basis Berlin Filmproduktion and Kino Lorber.

Likely the hardest movie to watch out of this category is “Of Fathers and Sons.” Documentary filmmaker Talal Derki gained access to photograph the lives of those involved with the Al-Nusra Front, an extremist group fighting in the Syrian Civil War.

The movie is a straight dive into the lives of these individuals, with a main focus on a father and his two sons. Derki captures the juxtaposition of the situation, documenting an honest, caring family dynamic while still showcasing the fanatical viewpoints they hold.

The picture is also a case study in religious indoctrination and violent extremist brainwashing. The most heart-wrenching part of the whole movie is watching the young kids featured grow up in an environment where they’re taught nothing but war and to have a narrow world view.

Overall I feel the doc could’ve used maybe some more graphics or statistics and possibly some post-interviews. The Syrian Civil War is a complex situation and having a little more context into where this is taking place and the impact on the whole conflict may have been helpful. But regardless, this is still a strong documentary.

“Hale County This Morning, This Evening.”

Courtesy Louverture Films and The Cinema Guild.

Directed by RaMell Ross, “Hale County” is a documentary following the happenings and people of a rural area in Alabama. Ross captured nearly everything with the camera, from family dynamics to school events and in doing so, it can give an audience an insight into what life is like in the area.

The cinematography is especially commendable. After watching the entire film, it’s clear Ross took a significant amount of time to find the right shots for the movie.

Unfortunately, the film does lack any real narrative structure and it begins to show after a while. Ross and others who worked on the film deserve credit for their dedication in filming so much and building a window into life in the rural South. However, the novelty can begin to wear off and once it does this can be a rather difficult one to sit through.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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